In his 13th season in the major leagues, Jason Marquis is still evolving; he's throwing more strikes than he ever has before, making a point only to pepper the bottom of the strike zone and worrying little about the results beyond that.
In his second year with the Nationals, he's rebounding. A year ago, he was out of the Nationals' rotation, letting the effects of a cortisone shot soothe his right elbow as he seethed over his 20.52 ERA in his first three starts. Marquis needed bone chips removed from his arm, and since then, he's got a 3.61 ERA in 14 starts.
In every other way, though, he's still the same pitcher he's always been - a reliable sinkerballer with a simple approach that mostly produces decent results, and occasionally, a trip into the stratosphere.
The confluence of those three things came on Friday night, when Marquis watched Rick Ankiel settle under the 27th and final out of the best game he'd thrown in the majors in nearly two years.
There wouldn't have been many Nationals fans a year ago - or even at the beginning of this season - who would have predicted Marquis would face the world champion San Francisco Giants, outpitch two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum and pitch a five-hit shutout in a 3-0 win for the Nationals. But he did it on Friday night, continuing to change the arc of his time in Washington after a disastrous start to it.
"I feel like I'm getting better in terms of quality strikes," Marquis said. "I'm more of a strike-thrower with all my pitches. That was one thing I had trouble with early in my career, and really battled through these last few years, is consistency with my secondary pitches, throwing them for strikes in any count. And I feel comfortable enough that I'm doing that more consistently."
He threw just 96 pitches, even though he struck out seven batters, and didn't walk anybody. Twelve of his 27 outs were groundouts, and the Giants only had one extra base hit. While the Nationals jumped on Lincecum early, getting three extra-base hits off him in the second inning before he closed their opening, Marquis never gave San Francisco a chance.
It was his first shutout since June 30, 2009, when he blanked the Los Angeles Dodgers; in his next start, he beat the Nationals by pitching eight shutout innings and made his only All-Star appearance a week after that. And it was the Nationals' first shutout since Livan Hernandez blanked the Brewers on April 17, 2010 - the day before Marquis would pitch to seven batters, retire none and run his ERA to 20.52 in his final start before surgery.
That symmetry, of what Marquis can be and what the Nationals need, hasn't been any clearer than it was Friday.
"Starting pitching is what it's all about," manager Jim Riggleman said. "That club over there really did some great things last year, but that pitching staff is what carried them through the year and kept them in contention. It's indicative of what you can do with good pitching. We've had a lot of good pitching performances from day one. It's what it's all about, and Jason and Livo are leading the way."
The Nationals still haven't had to pull a pitcher before the end of the fifth inning, and in the last two nights, they've used their bullpen for one inning. Marquis now leads the staff with a 2.62 ERA, and he's 3-0 in five games.
If his track record suggests anything, Marquis will slide back down at some point. He's never had a full-season ERA better than 3.71, and as all sinkerballers do, he'll get hit when his two-seamer flattens out in the zone. But right now, with everything coming together, he's doing exactly what the Nationals paid him $15 million over the last two seasons to do: lead a pitching staff that's turned in plenty of surprising performances this year.
None of those was more stunning than what Marquis did Friday.
"Everybody's goal, every time they step on the mound, is to finish what they started," Marquis said. "Nowadays, it's so specialized, with left-handed relievers and setup men and the closer, that they try to shorten the game. But ultimately as a starter, you want to finish what you started."